You’ve to understand the joy and the satisfaction of a whole generation over what happened in Antigua today. India did not just win a cricket Test match. Its players, particularly its bowlers, erased decades of pain and agony that Indian batsmen, and through them, the fans, experienced in the Caribbean at the hands of the West Indies bowlers. Sure India has won the last two or three series in the West Indies, but the wounds go deeper and much further back.
It all goes back more than half a century ago. There was a young and handsome Indian cricket captain named Nari Contractor, who was hit in the face by a fearsome West Indies fast bowler named Charlie Griffith during the 1961-62 tour, ending his Test career. These were helmet-less days, and as young boys, we grew up on the legend that Contractor almost died on the pitch, and the West Indies fast bowlers (Griffith’s bowling companion was Wes Hall) terrorized the Indian batsmen for years. The contractor was sent back home, and his replacement as captain was a younger (only 21) and equally handsome Tiger Pataudi. India was mauled 0-5 in the series.
It was only later that I read that the injury to Contractor happened during a tour game against Barbados between the second and third test, not in a test match. Griffith was indeed the bowler, and the injury was serious. Contractor, it was said, was struck on the back of the skull resulting in a blood clot that had to be removed through surgery because it was pressing against brain, paralyzing him waist down (the photos though show him holding his face). Among blood donors for the operation was the West Indies captain Frank Worrell, a gesture that was forgotten all too soon. Also, it was claimed that a moment’s distraction – someone opening a pavilion window in his peripheral vision – caused Contractor to be hit as he took his eyes off the ball. From all accounts, he was a courageous batsman, although he had single-digit scores in the four innings of two tests he had led on that tour. During a previous England tour, he had made 80-odd against Brian Statham and co with two broken ribs.
Still, he was flown back and the legend of the fearsome West Indies fast bowlers was born, eclipsed only briefly during the 1971 tour when Sunil Gavaskar creamed them for 779 in four tests (and Dilip Sardesai made 500+) and India won its first even series in the Caribbean. But it is the 1975-76 tour that will forever be indelible in my mind because I had now come of cricketing age (high school!).
Still eager to avenge the 1971 defeat, West Indies won the first test by an innings. The second test was a draw, India helped by yet another Gavaskar hundred. In the third test, set a target of 404 in the fourth innings, India won a fabulous victory chasing down what was then a record on the back of hundreds from Gavaskar and Viswanath. I still remember the game ending in the wee hours of the morning. The Indian Express in Mumbai (where I went to school) had a single word headline – the word VICTORY running vertically on column eight. It must have been very late to take any copy so the news editor or the night editor simply pulled out a single column story on column eight to announce the winner (Incidentally, this also kindled my interest in journalism).
I’ll let Wikipedia and Wisden describe what happened in the fourth and final test:
Going into the deciding test at Kingston, Jamaica at 1–1, the West Indies duly picked a four-pronged pace attack of Michael Holding, Wayne Daniel, Bernard Julien and Vanburn Holder. The Sabina Park pitch was new with uncertain and variable bounce, however, the Indian batsmen played with sound defence to grind out 178-1 at the end of the first day’s play. Overnight growth of grass encouraged the West Indian bowlers and they began to attack the Indian batsmen around the wicket, targeting the bodies of the opposition. After Mohinder Amarnath was dismissed by a short-pitched delivery, Viswanath, with a broken finger and Brijesh Patel, hit in the face, were forced to retire hurt. Then Anshuman Gaekwad, a tall bespectacled batsman who had battled bravely to reach 81 not out began to show signs of backing away to the leg as the onslaught of bouncers continued. After being hit on the glove and the body he was finally felled by a bouncer which hit him behind the left ear. He had to be taken to hospital.
The Indian captain Bishen Bedi and senior players such as Sunil Gavaskar were incensed by the West Indian tactics. They felt that the Umpires could have but had refused to intervene, partly because of crowd pressure. Gavaskar was particularly upset that the local crowd had chanted ‘kill him’ as Holding had bowled to Gaekwad and had cheered when the Indian batsman had been knocked out. Bedi declared the innings at 306/6, partly out of protest but also because he wanted to protect his and his slow-bowling partners’ spinning fingers. The West Indies scored 391 in their first innings, and when India went out to bat again they made a solid start but lost Amarnath, Madan Lal and Venkataraghavan in quick succession to slump to 97/5.
At this point, Bedi announced that the Indian innings was over. He was without the three batsmen who’d been hit in the first innings and was not prepared to allow his bowling partner Chandrasekhar, a terrible batsman, to face the West Indian quicks. He then stated that both he and Chandrasekhar had picked up fielding injuries and that consequently 5 Indian batsmen should be recorded as ‘retired hurt’. The West Indies have left the formality of scoring 13 runs to record the victory in a Test where they had only taken 11 wickets. According to Michael Holding: ”On that surface, it was inevitable that some batsmen would be hit against such a pace-based attack as ours, especially as we adopted the tactic of bowling around the wicket, aiming the ball at their bodies. I was not too keen on this method since it gives the batsman little chance of avoiding a bouncer, but it was 1–1 in the series and we were under extreme public pressure to win.”
According to Wisden, the Indian team resembled Napoleon’s troops in the retreat from Moscow as they boarded their ‘plane home. Official complaints were made by the Indian Cricket Board concerning the West Indian tactics in the final Test but to no avail. After this victory, Clive Lloyd developed a strategy based on an attack of four fast bowlers. It was to prove successful in the next series, a three-nil victory over England, and was to provide the foundation for the West Indian dominance of Test Cricket for the next 20 years.
So this is the background to the kind of joy and thrill I experienced today as Bumrah&co demolished the West Indies, making them look like novices. Of course, many Indian teams have beaten Windies soundly in the last two decades, but this was something special. Because what Bumrah & co did was not aimed at the batsmen’s body, but at their stumps — as should be done — shattering them several times. Four of the five Bumrah wickets today were clean bowled, each time the ball SMASHING into the stumps, sending them cartwheeling – the ultimate triumph of a fast bowler against a batsman. And he did it in a manner that must have hurt more than the batsman having his ribs broken. The best part was there was no gloating and no over-the-top celebration — just a gentle “I got you there” there (watch the video replays if you can). And each time that happened, I felt like cartwheeling in my drawing-room. Except there was not enough space and I would have suffered a concussion. Might have been worth it.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.